GEORGE Orwell, pictured above, was born Eric Blair on June 25, 1903. Thirty years later, when his first book was published, the name on the cover was not the Norse/Celtic one he had been born with, but a resolutely English name.
Whether deliberate or unconscious, his adoption of a robustly English persona chimes with what his friends and biographers have called his “deplorable anti-Scottish prejudice”, “his hatred of them”, his “loathing for Scots” and his “curious prejudice … more than whimsical”.
Orwell’s girlfriends have provided rich pickings for his biographers. One, tracked down by Bernard Crick, remembered that the young writer did not talk much about politics except to curse the empire and “the Scots by whom he appeared to imagine it dominated”.
Kay Ekevall, another girlfriend, remembered Orwell refusing to go to informal literary evenings given by the distinguished poet Edwin Muir and his novelist wife Willa (together renowned translators of Kafka) simply because they were Scottish. Orwell would even cross the road to avoid passing the Muirs’ door, such was his intense dislike of Scotland.
By all accounts, the Muirs were charming hosts and rather semi-detached as Scots, with Edwin a proud Orcadian who believed that his family’s move from Orkney to Glasgow was a descent from Eden into Hell, and Willa of Shetland heritage.
In the 1950s, Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown, pictured above, found the Muirs “kind and considerate” and an enormous support to him as a young writer, but Orwell would have nothing to do with the couple.
Orwell wrote to Eleanor Jaques saying that he loved Macbeth, and inviting her to a 1932 performance at the Old Vic. It was a generous offer, but a date that was unlikely to further endear him to Scotland.
Rayner Heppenstall, then a struggling writer eight years younger than Orwell, was one of Orwell’s two flatmates in Kentish Town. Heppenstall found Orwell “a nice old thing, kindly eccentric”. The three would talk over a lunch of bread, cheese and beer at a big table in Orwell’s room where, “Eric may have been inveighing against Scotchmen. The few Scottish nationalists then already vociferous were one of his favourite butts…”
When Orwell became a literary editor and was commissioning book reviews, he told Heppenstall that he had sent “the Scottish books to someone else (they didn’t look much good)”. Sadly, he didn’t name them so posterity can’t judge if it was literary quality or the Caledonian origin that put off Orwell from reviewing them himself.
This is a short extract from Les Wilson’s upcoming book exploring George Orwell, his Scotophobia and how he overcame it while living on Jura in the Inner Hebrides.
George, Jura And 1984: Orwell’s Island will be published by Saraband and available from September 14. RRP: £9.99. You can find more information here.
Wilson, a former political journalist, has written books including Islay Voices and The Drowned And The Saved: How War Came To The Hebrides, for which he won the Saltire Society award for best history book in 2018.